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Eratosthenes Measure of the Earths Circumference

Historical Context:
When: ca. 240 B.C.
Where: Alexandria, Egypt
Who: Eratosthenes
Mathematics focus: Determination of the circumference of the earth.

Suggested Readings:
Eratosthenes and his contributions to mathematics, science, and culture:

Ancient geodesy:
NCTMs Historical Topics for the Mathematics Classroom (1969):
Eratosthenes (pp. 72-74).
Key search words/phrases: Eratosthenes, circumference of earth, Alexandria
library, Egyptian astronomy, history of geodesy

Problem to Explore:
Determine the circumference of the earth.

Why This Problem is Important:

Example of the use of proportional reasoning and a simple scientific
experiment to make big steps in astronomical calculations.
Helped establish the idea that the earths surface is curved like a circle.

Problem Solving Experiences:

In addition to being chief librarian for the Alexandria library, Eratosthenes was a
scholar in mathematics, literature, geography, and history. Though the story of
Eratosthenes calculation of the circumference of the earth has many versions, most
of the stories integrate these assumptions:
By his observations, Eratosthenes knew that at noon on the longest day of the
year (or summer solstice) the sun would be directly overhead the Egyptian city
of Syene (now Aswan), which was on the Tropic of Cancer. But, the sun would
not be directly overhead Alexandria, which lay to the north of Syene.
Eratosthenes assumed that the distance between the sun and the earth was
so great that one could assume that the suns rays were parallel as they hit
the earth.
Eratosthenes assumed that the earths shape was a sphere (in agreement
with Aristotles claim).
Eratosthenes knew that Syene was on the same line of longitude (or meridian)
as Alexandria.
Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was
5040 stadia, where a stadion is a measurement unit for length.

For his experiment, Eratosthenes used two gnomons (straight sticks perpendicular to
the earths surface, one in Syene and the other in Alexandria. At noon on the
summer solstice, the sun cast no shadow at the foot C of the gnomon in Syene,
verified by the sun also hitting the very bottom of a deep well in Syene. However, in
Alexandria at that same time, the sun cast a shadow AB at the foot of the gnomon A,
from which Eratosthenes calculated that the inclination of the suns rays to the
vertical gnomon to be 1/50th of a circle (perhaps using a plumb hanging from the tip
of the gnomon to the tip of the shadow thereby forming angle ADB). The picture is as
Gnomon at Sun's rays
Alexandria D

7o12' B
Gnomon at

1. Use Eratosthenes information to calculate the circumference of the earth in

2. Find the equivalent length of the ancient stadion in feet, then calculate the
earths circumference in miles. How does this value compare with the
modern value?

The stories about Eratosthenes vary at this point. Some claim that the inclination
angle was 1/48th of a circle, not 1/50th. Some claim that Eratosthenes added 2000
more stadia to his calculated value of stadia, to account for experimental error in his
measurements. And, some claim common Eratosthenes used the Greek stadion
equal to 0.185 kilometers (i.e. the length of foot races at ancient Olympic games),
rather than the expected Egyptian stadion equal to 0.157 kilometers.

3. For all three of these alternative versions, calculate the respective

circumferences of the earth in miles.
Extension and Reflection Questions:
Extension 1: List sources of possible error in Eratosthenes experiment, including an
analysis of his assumptions.

Extension 2: In the 20th century, Enrico Fermi, a Nobel-prize-winning physicist, was

well known for his uncanny ability to make good estimates in calculations involving
little or no given data. For example, he is credited with using this intuitive way to
calculate the circumference of the earth.
How many time zones do you pass through when you fly from New York to
Los Angeles?
How many miles is it, about, over that same distance?
How many miles per time zone, on average?
How many time zones must there be around the world?
How many miles around the world?
Answer the questions to determine Fermis estimate for the earths circumference.

Extension 3: Imagine that the earth is a perfect sphere with a metal wire wrapped
around its equator, forming a circle snugly fitting against the earths surface. Now,
imagine that this wire is cut at some convenient spot, and an additional 30 foot-length
of wire is spliced into it. This spice will now cause some slack in the wire to occur,
however slight it may be. To equalize this slack, posts of an appropriate height are
placed all around the earths circumference to hold the wire taut, thereby creating a
larger circle than the one prior to the cut. Would you be able to:
Walk under the wire normally,
Walk under it but by bending your body down a lot,
Just barely squeeze under it (if at all), or
None of the above?
Finally, how would your answer change if you were on a planet with a different

Open-ended Exploration: Challenge students to design and implement an experiment

to calculate the earths circumference using techniques similar to those of
Eratosthenes. Also, investigate Eratosthenes adaptation of the Greek astronomer
Aristarchus of Samos work, so that he could first calculate the diameters of both the
moon and the sun and then calculate the distances from the earth to either the moon
or the sun.